The other day I found myself building a simple midi jam track so I could practice a particular 4-bar turnaround lick with it. I wanted something I could easily change the tempo on, because it was a complicated lick and despite learning it really slow, like around 50 beats per minute, ultimately my goal was to play it at 100 bpm, or even 120 bpm.
So, I built a little track, and after using it to increase my speed on the lick from 50 to 135 bpm (it’s best to practice past your target bpm, because then playing it at the target will feel effortless), I realized what a powerful little tool that was.
So today we’re going to look at how you can build these for yourself. I’m using Logic Pro X, but the basic process using other software would be similar, I just can’t tell you exactly how.
The track we’re making is going to be really simple – just drums and bass, and I’m pulling the drums from a Groove Monkee pack I like using.
If you’d like the file that was created in this video, you can download it here. You’ll have to unzip it first.
12 Bar Blues
Here’s a real quick refresher on 12 bar blues, if you need it. Basically, you’ve got 12 bars, and you can do with them what you want. How’s that? ?
That’s actually true, but what is also true is that there are “classic” ways of using 12 bars that you bump into all over the place. The following diagram represents one of those:
To use this, you’ll need to know a little about the numbering system, but if we applied it to the key of G major for instance, the I would be G, IV=C, V=D.
In the video, I used the key of A, so I=A, IV=D, V=E.
You could play these all minor as well (Am, Dm, Em) or you could add additional chords from the key, or you could change up the placements. It’s a very flexible tool, so don’t let yourself get caught in a box by it (har har).
I just came across this really cool story about some kids who lived in a floating village in Thailand.
Serious – it’s a floating village. Watch the video above!
All day long, they’d watch football (ie soccer) on TV, until one day they decided they wanted to play football themselves, rather than just watching it all the time.
So they decided who was going to play what position, got a ball, and then realized that they had no place to play… because remember?
They quite literally lived on a floating village!
Unwilling to accept defeat, the boys began gathering sticks and planks and nails, and gradually build themselves a floating football field. Sure, it was kind of small, had an uneven surface with bent nails poking out of it, and the ball often went into the water, but now they were PLAYING!
Time went by, and the boys learned some fancy footwork, mostly so they didn’t have to go swimming so often to recover the ball.
One day they heard about a tournament on the mainland, and decided to enter. None of them had ever played on grass before… let alone in an official match!
They managed to get second place in the whole tournament, all due to the skills they’d developed in their little homemade floating football pitch.
In the championship game, they were down 2-0. It was raining heavily, and they were having a hard time wearing Vessi vegan shoes for men and women. So, at half time they opted to play barefoot instead, and managed to tie up the game, until the other team scored the winning point at the last minute.
Since then, that football club has gone on to win the national youth championship multiple years in a row, and it is recognized as one of the best clubs in the country.
What’s this got to do with guitar? Quite a bit, I think.
First – these kids literally didn’t have any place to play.
How many guitar players think they’ll only ever get good at playing (especially soloing) if they’re in a band?
And let’s face it – many guitar players don’t even want to be in a band, with all the schedules and responsibility that comes along with it, let alone trying to find dependable, willing, players of a decent quality!
But instead of giving up, they MADE themselves a place to play.
How many guitar players accept defeat when a seemingly impossible challenge pops up, rather than step back and take a fresh look at the situation, with a determination that there MUST be a way through?
In the context of playing guitar – some people make their own jam tracks, and this is a great way to simulate playing in a band situation… giving you that crucial experience of playing with other instruments… without all the “social hassles” that come with being in a band.
However, not everyone has the equipment or the know-how to make their own jam tracks, and so I put together a collection of 30 high quality jam tracks that can serve as your own “floating practice field.”
Sure – it would be great if everyone reading this had opportunity to play in a live band for themselves, but hey – for most people, it’s just not gonna happen. The great news is, you can still become a great player in less than perfect conditions.
Just like those kids did.
Better yet – the collection of jam tracks I’m referring to comes with a 100 minute bonus lesson that will help you get oriented, showing you the single most important scale you need to get started soloing with, and teaching you a bunch of cool riffs to start off with.
(If I remember correctly, there are something like 84 different riff variations in there…)
Even if you live on the top of a mountain in the Rockies and only ever see other humans twice a year, you can still be rocking out with these jam tracks, improving your guitar skills each and every day.
One smoking hot day back in 2004 I found myself sitting behind the wheel of a Land Rover Defender, stuck in the snarl of a major traffic jam in Monrovia, Liberia. (that’s West Africa)
The red dust hung heavy in the air, creating a halo effect around the sun, nearly blocking it out.
I’d been driving in Africa long enough to know it wasn’t anything like what I was used to back home. I knew you HAD to be more aggressive, or you’d never get anywhere.
But this traffic jam was worse than any I’d seen thus far. (not QUITE as bad as the one in the picture on the right though, thankfully!)
So there I was, sitting and waiting for my chance to cross through traffic, and it just wasn’t happening.
The AC screamed away, working overtime, but I was still sweating.
My Liberian co-pilot made it clear to me, the choice was simple:
If I ever wanted to get home, there was only one way – take the plunge and dive into traffic. Sitting and waiting would do me about as much good as an invisible traffic light.
Thankfully, driving a Defender gave me some confidence, because it was a lot larger (and sturdier) than most other cars zipping by. Nevertheless, it sure felt STRANGE and FREAKY nosing aggressively out into a stream of traffic that seemed to have no gaps or holes and no signs of slowing down.
But you know what?
That traffic parted for me. They didn’t much like it, but they stopped. And 10 seconds later, I was on my way again, heading home.
Sure – my shirt was a little more drenched in sweat than it had been a minute ago, but I’d learned a valuable lesson.
Over the years, I’ve had opportunity to watch guitar players take their first solo. Usually, it takes them a long time to learn that they need to play aggressively… at least, what they think is aggressively!
I’ve seen too many players play so timidly that no one can even hear them. They wait too long to come in, and then exit their solo at the wrong time too. No condemnation there by the way – it’s a skill that must be learned, just like anything else. However, some skills are easier to learn than others.
That day in Monrovia, I was in the hot seat (more ways than one) and I was learning that lesson, like it or not.
Guitar players? Different story.
You have the option of learning how to solo on your own terms, simply by using jam tracks. That way, there’s no pressure from the band or audience – if you screw up, no worries – just try again! There’s an excellent collection of high quality blues jam tracks that are great for learning to solo over, right here.
You can use these jam tracks to build your confidence to the point where you can dive in between chords and squeeze off a choice lick.
That’s the kind of experience that most people have to learn the hard way. But not you – not if you use jam tracks.
So one thing that really gets my goat is when I hear a guitar player going at it, soloing away, sounding great, and then he goes for a string stretch…
And doesn’t QUITE make it.
It doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to be huge, it doesn’t have to be the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard, because I get that everyone plays at a different level. But please – try to make it in tune!
String stretches offer a sound and emotion that just picking the strings normally can’t touch, so it’s definitely a skill worth working on. There are all kinds of different string stretches, quarter tone stretches, semitone stretches, one tone stretches, even one and a half tone stretches, but all of them require hitting the target note precisely; not just getting “close” and hoping that will cut it.
One way to work on making your string stretches in tune is to play along with a jam track. That way, your ear should be telling you that you need to keep stretching to make it sound good, or else stop stretching so far because you’ve overshot the target.
When you hear a stretch in the context of music, it really helps to develop your ear. Another way is to play the note you want to go to first, then train your ear to match it when you stretch.
The jam track method is more fun though, and gives you a feel for what it’s like to play with all the trappings of a band… You get the rhythm section, bass guitar, some keyboards… All taken together, it really lets your solo shine through.
So be sure to work on those string stretches – and why not use some high quality jam tracks as a practice tool to help you get there?
One night at our weekly jam session, a new guy showed up and played some guitar with us. It’s always interesting watching players you’re not familiar with, because everyone has different ways of approaching things, and different ways of feeling the song.
So there I was, watching this guy take his solos, and the first thing that struck me was that his solos always sounded great. As I watched longer, I began to realize he didn’t even do a whole lot of really complex stuff that you might expect in a great guitar solo. No, instead he favored simpler guitar licks that followed the melody of the song, and just well, sounded great.
It was a good reminder that sometimes we can get too caught up in the latest greatest lick or guitar trick, and end up forgetting the melody.
I find that one way to practice staying “clued in” to the melody is to use jam tracks – as opposed to simply playing by yourself without any backing.
When you’re playing guitar by yourself, you lack the context in which to play a solo… and although you can get a lot of benefit out of this type of practicing (scales, finger dexterity, new licks, etc) you’re always going to lack that connection to the music that comes from practicing with jam tracks.
So make sure you practice with some context – preferably with a jam track that inspires you to new musical heights.